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14

Cat Cross Their Graves

Pawing at the heavy glass door of Molena Point PD, Joe pressed his nose against its cold surface, peering into the booking area. Except for the dispatcher, the small room was empty. To his left, the holding cell with its barred door was empty of prisoners, too. Behind the dispatcher's U-shaped counter Mabel Farthy sat among her radios and phones and computers, half turned away from the door and busy with a call. He meowed loudly. Very likely she didn't hear him through the thick bulletproof glass and over the noise of the phone and radio. Mabel was square, sturdy, blond, and in her mid-fifties. She must just have had her hair done because the color was brighter than usual, the short, layered cut neatly coiffed. She had a phone to her ear and was talking into the radio as well, apparently fielding a call and sending out a unit. Through the heavy glass, Joe couldn't hear her words, but Mabel seemed well in control, keeping the caller on the line as she relayed information to a responding unit. From somewhere north of the village, a siren started to whoop, moving away fast into the hills. Mabel didn't look up until the siren stopped, likely as the unit arrived.

As she hung up the phone and turned to the fax machine, Joe reared up, throwing all his weight against the glass. He was barely able to rattle the heavy lock in its metal frame; his violent effort elicited only a tiny thunk.

But that small sound was enough to bring Mabel straight up from her chair, reaching for the alarm button and touching her holstered automatic. Then she saw Joe peering in.

Hitting the remote instead of the alarm, she released the lock and came around the counter to pull the door open. She shook her head at him, grinning. "You are such a little freeloader."

Smiling up at her, Joe sauntered in taking his sweet time, slow and unhurried, in the best feline tradition.

"Hurry it up, Joe! You want to let in the whole village?" She glanced up and down the street. "I haven't got all night. What is it with cats!"

Mabel had cats at home and, apparently, a husband who was just about as indolent. As soon as Joe strolled through the door, she pressed it closed again and tested that it had locked. He looked up at her innocently and rubbed against her leg. Mabel gave him an impatient but amused sigh. Mabel was always good about letting them into the station; she had no idea how much he hated having to ask.

There had been a time when Joe and Dulcie could paw the unlocked station door open whenever they pleased, to wander in and out of the big squad room. That was before Max Harper remodeled the interior of the building, increasing department security. Before the more dangerous elements in the world had extended their influence quite so stubbornly into the small village…

Before Molena Point rocked with an explosion that blew up the village church; before a meth lab sprang up back in the woods and another north of the village, poisoning surrounding land and water; before the Medellin cartel increased its visits to these small coastal towns, cars full of thugs driving up from L.A. to break out plate-glass windows and steal millions in precious stones. Now Molena Point had joined the larger world. This village might be small, but it was a well-to-do tourist retreat. There were, among the upscale shops, twenty-three jewelry stores, and many times that in the surrounding towns of the county. Tourists meant money, and Molena Point lived on the largesse of happy shoppers.

The tomcat didn't much like the increases necessary in departmental security that came with intensified village crime. But it didn't matter what he liked, one cat can't change the world. Though Joe had some thoughts on how to do just that, if ever the opportunity arose. In his view, if humans took a more feline stance in these matters, the crime rate would drop like a stone.

Meantime, he could fight the bad guys on his own terms, as much as he was able. And so far he and Dulcie and Kit had done all right. Over a dozen killers and assorted thieves were living very well at the expense of California taxpayers, including a couple of folks awaiting the state's attention on death row.

Joe wondered if evil came in waves throughout history. If tides of evil grew powerful, as in the Dark Ages, and then eased off. Maybe good and evil were forever changing balance over the decades, each increasing, then waning.

But to what end? And why did he think about this stuff! These were matters for human deliberation, these abstractions didn't worry most cats. Your ordinary everyday tomcat lived for the moment, lived to kill and make love, sleep in the sun, take happiness where he found it. Not waste his time pondering philosophical ambiguities. Your everyday garden-variety tomcat didn't give a damn about the state of the world. He whiled away his nine lives manipulating humans when the occasion arose, and thoroughly enjoying himself.

So why am I different? Why are Dulcie and Kit different, why do we care about these things? Why do we spend our talents and energy so freely to cure the ills of the world?

Joe didn't have the answer. That was the way he was made. His curiosity, his fierce predatory skills, and his natural ability to outsmart humans had combined in a new way. His enraged, often amused drive to set straight the flawed rejects of the human world seemed to Joe himself insatiable. Feline undercover work was a huge and fascinating chess game, with the highest possible stakes.

Leaping onto Mabel's counter, Joe looked up into her round, motherly smile wondering what she'd brought for supper. Mabel Farthy was always pleased to see him. Mabel's brown, laughing eyes and happy expression inspired total confidence from beast or child-just as her acumen with a.38 police special, when needed, could inspire respect from an assortment of miscreants who might misjudge her motherly appearance. A matronly lady with a little extra fat on the hips did not necessarily add up to ineptitude in the arts of law enforcement.

"So, you little bum." Mabel scratched behind Joe's ears in just the way he liked. "You hungry? When were you ever not hungry?" Reaching under the counter of her busy electronic cubicle, she drew forth the paper bag containing her lunch, which she'd stashed on a lower shelf. Mabel, in packing her lunches, seemed always to allow generous portions for any visiting felines.

Joe purred extravagantly as she unwrapped a piece of fried chicken. Mabel made the best fried chicken; Joe didn't know what she did to it, but it smelled like the kind of chicken he imagined would be served in cat heaven. And Mabel Farthy well understood that a helpless little cat, wandering many blocks from home, would be hungry on these cold winter nights.

Removing the chicken from the bone, she tore it into small pieces, which she laid on one of a supply of paper plates that she kept beneath the counter for just this purpose. Next to Mr. Jolly, who owned the deli, Mabel had turned into the second-finest provider in the village in matters feline.

The chicken didn't last long; Joe tore into Mabel's offering as if he hadn't eaten in months. When he'd finished, holding the plate down with his paw, he licked it as clean as would a ravenous dog. Mabel, tossing the empty plate in the wastebasket, wiped her hands on one of those damp paper squares that she pulled from a little cylinder, then stood stroking him for a few minutes.

When she returned to the fax machine, sorting through the pages it had spewed forth, Joe wandered along the counter to Harper's report box. Still purring, he studied the fresh copy, smelling the faint aroma of the laser-jet toner. Reading the top sheet, he smiled.

He must be on a roll. He'd lucked out not only with fried chicken, but apparently with a full printout of the witness interviews from the murder of Patty Rose. Pretending to wash his shoulder, he sat reading, wanting badly to lift a paw and flip the top sheet away, restraining himself with difficulty.

But the top summary sheet said all that was really necessary. Max Harper's and the two detectives' interviews of the witnesses was one big ho-hum. One gigantic blank. Not one of those present in the bar or restaurant or in their rooms saw anything out of the ordinary. Half a dozen people heard shots, or what sounded like shots, but no one saw anything. Garza's summary described interviews so negative that one had to wonder if these folks were hiding something.

But that was a paranoid thought. Now who was imagining things? Turning away with disgust, he pushed close to Mabel to have a look at the growing pile of faxes that she was sorting into neat stacks. Rubbing lovingly against her arm, Joe scanned the reports beneath her fast-moving hands.

Nice. Very nice. These were the missing-child cases; and more were coming in, in a steady production from the fax machine.

All were old cases, five years, ten, fifteen years. Unsolved cases that might have been brought out now and then, at infrequent intervals, when an officer had some new line on child abductions, some new hint at a solution. But cases that were filed away again, unsolved. One case in Portland was over twenty years old.

Picking up the stack, Mabel thumped it on the counter to align the edges, put the stack in the copier, and ran two more sets. So many children lost, no closure to their disappearance, no answers for their families. What was the background on these kids? Did they have something in common? Joe burned for a long look, undisturbed. What kind of kids were they, what kind of families? Did these kids come from stable households, or live with drunks or in broken homes? Where did they go to school? Were they problem students? Runaways who'd been picked up by some lowlife-disaster waiting to happen?

Which child was this, buried in the seniors' garden? Was his or her background included among these cases? And would the forensics team, tonight or tomorrow, find more bodies? There was only one word for the murder of innocent children. Evil. Complete evil.

Licking his paw, he watched Mabel set up a cross-referencing chart on her computer, listing the cases by date and location, and by age of child. None seemed to have occurred any closer to Molena Point than Seattle to the north, and Orange County to the south. Dr. Hyden had said it would take some time to determine the age of the corpse but that, given the Molena Point climate, and if the body had been buried soon after death, it might date from four to ten years ago. When Mabel finished sorting, and no more faxes had come through, Joe curled up in her out box to await further electronically generated intelligence.

Yawning, he felt his eyes droop. It had been a long night. A long day and previous night; he had not had his cat's share of sleep. Tucking his nose under his paw, shielding his eyes from the harsh overhead lights, he felt himself drop into a doze. Just a few minutes, he thought, to renew his energy, to prepare for future action. Yawning again, Joe slept.


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